IN THIS AUSTERE, uncomfortable novel, Elie Wiesel relates a 20th-century Jewish odyssey. Born in Russia before the Revolution, Paltiel Kossover becomes a poet and a Communist. To the grief of his Orthodox Jewish parents, he travels to Western Europe to serve his new faith. He is in Germany at the sickening moment when it becomes clear that its people are turning to fascism and anti-Semitism; he escapes to the turbulent political debates of Paris. He has a brief, moving interlude in Palestine, carrying out a secret mission. Wherever he goes he takes his phylacteries and his Jewish learning, like a burdensome suitcase that just might be useful. He experiences the brotherhood, misery and disillusionment of the Spanish Civil War; then returns to France.
When Nazism threatens that country, he makes his way uncertainly back to the Soviet Union. He welcomes the outbreak of war against Hitler joyfully, after the deeply disturbing period of the Russo-German Pact. He serves bravely as a stretcher-bearer. After the victory, Kossover becomes a card-carrying member of the party, his poetry is published, his reputation flourishes, he marries and has a son. In 1952 he is arrested, in Stalin's sudden turning against the Jews. Like the real-life Jewish poets, he is shot -- in the town of his birth. His odyssey is over.
Unlike Odysseus, but like the real Jewish poets, and millions of humbler Jews in our time, he is expunged from the record. Even his death is wiped out. Or so it seems. But there is a testament, and a witness. Kossover's interrogator, despairing of extracting evidence from him by torture, encourages him to write his autobiography. No poet could resist such a clever ploy. Kossover, recanting his apostasy, denounces the false religion of communism, and places himself firmly back in the Judaic fold. It is all, of course, excellent evidence against him. The poet's uncomfortable truths will never see the light of day; they will die with him. Except that the hidden stenographer becomes moved by the prisoner's words, and resolves to keep them alive. Years later he passes the testament on to Kossover's son, Grisha. Grisha, who is a mute, has arrived in the new state of Israel. In fragments interwoven with the testament itself, we see him beginning his new life and learning to know his father.
For us -- reading over his shoulder, as it were -- the testament of the fictional poet is clearly intended by the author to carry a representative authority. Kossover's is the voice of traditional religion, but he has also been a convert to secular religion. He is a poet, too: the voice of truth and humanity. Unfortunately, for most of the novel he does not write like a poet. The pressure of crowding in too many journeys causes the author to crowd out the rich complications of life and relationships; for much of the way the testament is a rather lifeless chronicle. Kossover's "burning, incandescent verses" turn out to be mediocre. The prose style strains pretentiously for effect at the most intense points -- for example, when Kossover describes an anti-Jewish program of his childhood: "Their madness was going to burst into our universe: black and hateful, a savage madness thirsting for blood and murder. It was approaching slowly, cunningly, with measured steps, like a pack of wild beasts encircling a victim."
Yet in the end, with moving unexpectedness, the dry bones live. The quickening occurs with the onset of the Second World War; and the surge of intensity in the writing may be not unconnected with the fact that Wiesel was himself a victim of the Nazis, in the concentration camps. Be that as it may, his hero and narrator suddenly begins to testify with the bleak and searing eloquence that his calling, and his situation, would seem likely to evoke. For the first time, his prison cell becomes real, instead of a fictional device for the narrative. There are wonderful, painful accounts of his attempt to save the life of a dying German soldier; of coming to the house of his parents and discovering that they have been taken off in the cattle trucks. Now, there is no straining for effect, but absolutely the right words for ultimate horror: "Between the world and myself, between my life and myself, there was this dark mass of infinite, unspeakable, tumultuous sadness; it encompassed the first man killing the last." Poems about his father do, at last, burn. The novel reaches a climax of tragic power, as the stenographer-witness describes the pre-dawn execution. In more than one sense, the author has wrested life out of death.
It is a very masculine book. The women with whom Kossover has brief, joyless affairs, and the woman he marries, are little more than shadows. The theme of father and son dominates. The absence of the feminine, together with the -- more understandable -- absence of lyricism and humor, makes for an uncompromisingly severe novel. There is, too, the suggestion of a "Keep Out" sign for non-Jewish readers. "Funny," observes Kossover, "everything seems to bring me back to Jewish memory." This is so apparent that it risks diminishing his universal humanity; yet there are no signs that Wiesel takes account of this.
If he intends his poet to be the Good Man, sincere even when he was misguided -- and I believe he does -- then it is strange that he has him joining the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1946, the year of renewed hardline persecution of writers, notably Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko. Kossover testifies that his book of poems was published in that year, and he had few complaints. Not until the famous Jewish director, Solomon Mikhoels, dies in sinister circumstances in 1948 does Kossover start to feel uneasy. The Testament has both the strengths and limitations of having been written from inside the Jewish consciousness. The strengths, however, are stronger than the limitations. When the author's voice, through his hero's, finally bursts into flame, lit by the ashes of the dead, it speaks with authority.